Suspending Disbelief abstract by Ruth Berman

Suspending Disbelief:
The Development of Fantasy as a Literary Genre
in Nineteenth- Century British Fiction
as Represented by Four Leading Periodicals:
Edinburgh Review, Blackwood’s, Fraser’s, and Cornhill
by Ruth Amelia Berman.
PhD thesis, U of MN, 1979, 358 pp. University Microfilms order number 7918318.

At the start of the nineteenth century British critics were confused by the use of supernatural motifs in fiction. Such motifs, absent from most eighteenth-century fiction (except the Gothic novels at the end of the century), were popular in the work of James Hogg and other writers.

Francis Jeffrey and other writers in the Edinburgh Review (begun 1802) until the mid-1830’s condemned the use of such motifs as superstitious. However, they accepted such motifs in fiction if used sparingly. John Wilson, J.G. Lockhart, and other writers for Blackwood’s (begun 1817) until the mid-1830’s liked tales of the supernatural, but found it difficult to justify their preference. They suggested that superstitions believed in the past were acceptable in historical novels, and that superstitions believed in childhood could temporarily affect an adult and so could be acceptable in adult fiction.
The supernatural fiction appearing in Blackwood’s in the 1820’s and in Fraser’s (begun 1830) in the early 1830’s was dominated by James Hogg. His stories were based on just such “believable,” folkloristic superstitions as the Blackwood’s critics thought acceptable. On the average, Blackwood’s and Fraser’s published two fantasies a year.
In the late 1820’s and through the 1830’s German Kunstmärchen became influential. Many writers imitated Hoffman, especially, also Chamisso, Novalis, Tieck, and Fouqué. The resulting stories made use of supernatural motifs not found in folklore (e.g., a Diary kept by the Devil) and sometimes took place entirely in original fairylands. The best of these stories, by John Sterling, approached Hogg’s quality. Apart from Hogg’s work, most of the stories which restricted the supernatural to the believable were poorer than the stories based on German models.
From the mid-1830’s to the mid-1870’s (and, in the Edinburgh Review, the early 1800’s) the critics in the Edinburgh Review, Blackwood’s, Fraser’s, and Cornhill (begun 1860) disapproved of the supernatural, even in poetry. The only exceptions allowed were in children’s literature and the works of the Americans. Leslie Stephen, who showed the most appreciation for Hawthorne and Poe, argued that supernatural fiction was peculiarly American. During this period the magazines published little fantasy. On the average, Blackwood’s and Fraser’s published only one fantasy a year, and Cornhill one every two years.
The fantasy published in the periodicals in the middle years of the century included much that was excellent, especially in the works of Edward Bulwer Lytton, George Eliot, and George MacDonald. The stories not limited to “believable” use of the supernatural continued to be better than those which were so limited.
In the closing years of the century (mid-1870’s on), the critics discovered that “belief” in any literal sense was not necessary to artistic use of the supernatural. New writers, including Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Walter de la Mare, and Andrew Lang, met with appreciation from the critics.
The magazines printed more fantasy, averaging one and a half a year in Cornhill, two a year in Fraser’s, and two and a half a year in Blackwood’s. They included much that was excellent, especially in the works of Stevenson, de la Mare, Lang, Thomas Hardy, Margaret Oliphant, Arthur Conan Doyle, Vernon Lee and John Buchan. Except for traditional ghost stories (including some by Oliphant) and some stories of “second sight,” the distinction disappeared between stories which were or were not based on “believable” folklore. Stories mixed freely a wide variety of original and traditional motifs. Fantasy had proved to be a valid, and versatile, way of writing fiction.